Note: Thank you to one of my readers, “KL,” for contributing this essay.
“I’m really nervous about the German Shepherd.”
I was walking with my dog at our favorite off-leash hiking area, and from about ten feet away, I heard a woman say this to her husband.
Oblivious, my dog trotted along with her nose to the ground, tail waving slightly as it does when she is enjoying herself. I called to her, and we walked off in the opposite direction.
The path is constructed as a circle, so we crossed paths with these people a couple of more times. Each time, we turned around and went the other way, my dog promptly and obediently responding to my call. Each time, the woman made a nervous comment that I overheard.
We weren’t doing anything wrong, but it was clear that this woman was afraid of my dog and wished we would leave the park.
This was far from the first time things like this had happened.
As my puppy grew out of the floppy-eared fuzzball stage and into that distinctive black and tan saddle pattern and pricked ears, people we met began to keep their distance. Parents started crossing the street with their kids when they saw us coming. Teenagers would call out warnings to their friends: “That German Shepherd will bite you!”
This avoidance confuses my dog from time to time. She doesn’t know she is a German Shepherd or what that means to people. I may laugh privately at someone’s overreaction if it’s comically over the top, but the reality is that some people have deeply rooted fears of this breed. The wolf-like silhouette and trademark stance are practically iconic, and they are a powerful symbol.
My dog and I are a data point. She didn’t ask for this role, but she’s a breed ambassador anytime we are out and about.
We’re in good company with the responsible owners of pits, Rottweilers, and Dobermans, to name a few, and remembering what this means is important: It means some people will notice my dog, and a subset of those people will judge an entire breed by how she handles herself.
It is essential that I am prepared to recognize fear and respond appropriately.
Being aware and sensitive to this requires an extra layer of alertness when we’re out in the community. It means that I can never give the impression that I am not in control. I have to uphold high standards for her public manners; behaviors that are normal at home and that would communicate playfulness or frustration may be perceived as more aggressive than the same behavior in other types of dogs.
It means that my dog would ideally look friendly (luckily, she is generally outgoing). I must be a courteous handler who is aware of the presence of others and allows them their space. It might even mean altering a planned walking route in order to avoid looking like we’re following someone who seems nervous.
I’m not here to say that the kind of prejudice that comes from fears of particular breeds is a good thing, or something to enable. It exists, it’s often understandable – perhaps based in past trauma – and it doesn’t strike me as constructive to point fingers at people for feeling that way; fear isn’t rational.
The best thing I can do is show my dog as a positive counterpoint. So I can’t complain about being a breed ambassador. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate that this breed I love so much can be an excellent pet and sport or working companion when appropriately socialized and trained.
My dog is a pet and will never be bred, but every time she wins over someone new, I see her contributing to the future of German Shepherds as a whole.
Do you own a type of dog people tend to be afraid of? How do you work with that?
What does being a breed ambassador mean to you?
Read KL’s past essay “What do good breeders and good rescues have in common?”